29 January 2005

Train Wreck Murders

You'll remember the man who was trying to suicide by train and changed his mind jumping out of his truck (which was stuck on the tracks). 11 people were killed and the prosecutor and press have been talking about murder charges and possibly capital murder charges. A discussion I had with CP in the comments of this post left me with the idea that maybe a little explanation of how might be of interest.

To begin with the basic murder charge in this situation seems to rise under California Penal Code 219:
Every person who unlawfully . . . places any obstruction on any railroad with the intention of derailing any passenger, freight or other train, car or engine and thus derails the same . . . is guilty of a felony and punishable with death or imprisonment in the state prison for life without possibility of parole in cases where any person suffers death as a proximate result thereof, or imprisonment in the state prison for life with the possibility of parole, in cases where no person suffers death as a proximate result thereof.
Furthermore, California Penal Code 189 declares what type of murder it would be:
All murder . . . which is committed in the perpetration of, or attempt to perpetrate, . . . train wrecking . . . is murder of the first degree.
And further specifies under California Penal Code 190.2:
(a) The penalty for a defendant who is found guilty of murder in the first degree is death or imprisonment in the state prison for life without the possibility of parole if one or more of the following special circumstances has been found under Section 190.4 to be true:

(17) The murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in, or was an accomplice in, the commission of, attempted commission of, or the immediate flight after committing, or attempting to commit, the following felonies:

(I) Train wrecking in violation of Section 219.
These seem to be the statutes which would have to be applied. Nevertheless, assuming the news articles are correct these statutes don't seem to fit. After all, his intent was to commit suicide, not to derail the train. As well, in order to prove that he intended to derail the train you would need to show knowledge on the defendant's part that the train was being pushed rather than having the locomotive at the front of the train. Common perception is that the locomotive leads the train and trains with the locomotive at the front smash into (and destroy) things without derailing.

I think that the most likely result here is manslaughter. Depending on exactly how California's case law defines "driving" it may be involuntary or vehicular (both under California Penal Code 192:
Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice.
. . . . .

(b) Involuntary--in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony. . . . This subdivision shall not apply to acts committed in the driving of a vehicle.

(c) Vehicular--

(1) Except as provided in Section 191.5, driving a vehicle in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony, and with gross negligence; or driving a vehicle in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, and with gross negligence.

(2) [D]riving a vehicle in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony, but without gross negligence; or driving a vehicle in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, but without gross negligence.
Of course, I don't practice in California so I don't know how all this is effected by case law. Still, I don't see how this can lead to murder convictions.

[addendum] CrimProf has also done some looking into this. The post concentrates on whether Ca. Penal Code 219 requires specific intent or merely knowledge of a probable outcome. While I would assert it requires a specific intent on its face ("with the intention of derailing"), I think that even the proof of knowledge of derailment is difficult to make (see the discussion supra about locomotive location).

7 comments:

Sniffy said...

California suicide law is complicated. The attempt may well be considered a felony, in this case, but then again, it may not. Did he hold a life insurance policy? Were there outstanding leins against him? Could dependants materially benefit from his death?

Killing yourself in CA is a bad idea. If I were still there, and also wanted to die, I'd go do it in Nevada.

Gideon said...

When I first read that California was planning to charge the man with a capital felony, my initial reaction was pretty much the same; that he did not possess the requisite intent to commit murder. Immediately I thought of manslaughter. But reading the post by CrimProf does raise the interesting issue of specific intent vs. general intent. Were the statute to refer to general intent, then it would be possible to proceed on murder, but as you rightly pointed out, the statute seems to indicate specific intent. Thinking about this more, I would be willing to go as far as criminal negligence. However California code sec. 192 states the following:

" "Gross negligence," as used in this section, shall not be construed as prohibiting or precluding a charge of murder under Section 188 upon facts exhibiting wantonness and a conscious disregard for life to support a finding of implied malice, or upon facts showing malice, consistent with the holding of the California Supreme Court in People v. Watson, 30 Cal. 3d 290."

It is the part about 'implied malice' that troubles me.

Sec. 192(b) speaks of involuntary manslaughter and defines it as
"Manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice. It is of three kinds:
(b)Involuntary-in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to felony; or in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection. This subdivision shall not apply to acts committed in the driving of a vehicle."

Can this be construed as an act committed in the driving of a vehicle?

Ken Lammers said...

The "implied malice" issue doesn't bother me as much in this case as it would in others. Hard to imply malice to others from a suicide attempt.

As to whether this can be construed as an act committed in the driving of a vehicle, I suspect that's a question which would require research into California case law. The problem is that the meaning of "driving" may have been warped under application in DUI cases.

Gideon said...

As far as the definition of 'driving', I am inclined to agree with you - a review of CA law would be necessary. However, I think the theory behind implied malice is that you have wanton disregard for the result of your actions, knowing that they are likely to cause harm and/or death.

Implied intent and like statutes have always bothered me, generally speaking.

I wonder how many states still use malice in their statutes. I know CT doesn't have malice as an element.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that he was parked and stopped with the engine off when he was struck. If this is correct, he wasn't driving under California rules.

This particular mode of suicide shows depraved indifference to human life, IMO. I think he's looking at a mountain of second degree murders.

--JRM

Mister DA said...

I'm with JRM, sounds like "depraved heart" second degree murder to me. Although you could make a "constructive intent" to derail argument. What else did he think would happen? I mean, in addition to being squashed like a bug? But I think Calif is one of those states that expressly defines murder by statute, so is the classic wilful and wanton disregrad of the likely consequences of his act to be death or serious bodily injury mens rea available to prosecurors?

marissa said...

I really like your conversation on life insurance. I have a life insurance secrets blog if you wanna come on over and check my stuff out.